EDITORIAL: A fair society needs more than the constitutional structures of a democracy; we need healthy, respectful debate and a willingness to face hard truths.
A truly democratic society embraces diversity, confronts the wrongs of the past, and values robust debate through a free and independent media.
Weaknesses in all three elements have been exposed in Australia in recent days, with the events prompting veteran Indigenous journalist Stan Grant to walk away from the ABC, where he has worked since 2017 after a long career in commercial broadcasting.
Grant’s absence – for however long he decides it lasts – is a loss to all those who value good journalism and in particular, to Indigenous people and other minorities for whom he is a role model.
The fact that he is stepping back after suffering appalling racism because he dared ask Australians to confront their colonial past is a sign that there is something rotten in the Commonwealth of Australia.
It is entirely appropriate that, beside the hymns and the hats, our national broadcaster should invest 45 minutes discussing the constitutional and historical implications of a new “King of Australia”.
Like many high-profile Indigenous Australians, Grant has withstood racists for many years. The incident which spurred his decision goes deeper; to the very heart of our need to acknowledge that Australia – like many modern nations – was conceived in sin and has yet to confront its past.
In the lead-up to the coronation of Charles III, Grant participated in a panel where he pointed out that the Crown represents the invasion and theft of Aboriginal land. “The Crown is not above politics to us, because the symbol of that Crown was, it represented the invasion, the theft of land, and in our case, the exterminating war which next year will mark 200 years,” he said.
His comments set off an avalanche of criticism. Sky News and The Australian newspaper cited Grant’s comments more than 150 times in the past two weeks, according to a count by The Guardian.
Worse, Grant was the target of sustained and hateful racism on social media. The ABC, which at other times has appropriately defended its journalists, provided no public support to Grant, which ABC managing director David Anderson apologised for on Sunday.
That was two days after Grant had written a powerful column explaining why he was walking away from one of the top jobs in Australian journalism, as host of Q&A, because he needs a break from the “social media sewer”.
The ABC was right to broadcast a discussion of the legacy of colonisation on the day of the coronation. True, the panel Grant participated in was heavily weighted to republicanism, with two other republicans, Indigenous writer Teela Reid and co-chair of the Australian Republic Movement Craig Foster, and only one monarchist, Liberal backbencher Julian Leeser.
But it was broadcast in the context of many hours of coronation coverage and of a natural conversation about whether the changing of the guard will revive the republic debate in Australia.
It is entirely appropriate that, beside the hymns and the hats, our national broadcaster should invest 45 minutes discussing the constitutional and historical implications of a new “King of Australia”, including a recognition of the historic injustices the Crown visited on Indigenous Australians.
That some Australians could not stomach this debate does not reflect well on our democracy. That some responded with ugly racism and personal attacks on Grant is evidence of a nation failing in the rudiments of civic society. That the ABC didn’t immediately defend Grant and reject the racist bile he was subjected to, reveals a weakness in our most important media institution.
Democracy is complicated and requires work. In recent months, Israel has made headlines around the world because the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial overhaul weakens the country’s democratic infrastructure. Just this week Australian judges released a statement criticising the attack on judicial independence.
The civil crisis in Israel is indeed a matter of communal concern and we need to do everything we can to protect the democratic foundations on which the country was established.
But the fallout from the coronation panel is a reminder that institutions alone are not enough to protect a fair and decent liberal democracy. Australia, too, has its democratic challenges. which requires including diverse viewpoints and defending a robust media, without which our own democracy will be weakened.
Australia also needs a future built on an honest encounter with its past. Until we are honest about the injustices of settlement and reconcile with Indigenous Australians – beginning with creating a Voice to Parliament for Indigenous Australians – we will be an incomplete and troubled nation.
Photo: Stan Grant (ABC)